Torah Portion of the Week: Unconditional Loyalty

Parashat Bechukotai: The mutual loyalty between God and humanity is unconditional.

'Despair of the Defenders of Jerusalem,' from the 1890 Holman Bible.
Wikimedia Commons

Just before the end of the Book of Leviticus, at the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34), a special section concludes the presentation of most of the commandments that God handed down to Israel, according to the narrative, in the Tent of Meeting at the foot of Mount Sinai. The section ends: “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:46). That verse, however, is preceded not by commandments but rather by blessings and curses – or, as Bible scholar Gili Kugler states in her study on Leviticus 26, promises and warnings.

Instead of elaborating on the content of the commandments, this part of the weekly reading describes the rewards for observing the commandments and the consequences of failing to observe them. “If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them” (Lev. 26:3), the text reads, the rewards will be such and such. However, “if ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments” (26:14), the consequences, God forbid, will be very different.

Blessings and curses were accepted elements in treaties between peoples in the ancient Near East; they were the guarantee that the terms of a covenant would be complied with, while it was the gods on both sides that were responsible for making them come true.

In the Bible, God himself enters into a covenant with Israel, and it is he who determines the Hebrew nation’s fate. Because of the nature of this covenant, the consequences of observing his commandments is presented as an option that needs no elaboration: The result will be that everything will run as it is meant to. Whereas only 10 verses in Bechukotai describe the rewards for observing the commandments, 30 verses enumerate the consequences of nonobservance.

Chapters like Leviticus 26 can have the effect of reinforcing a commonly held view regarding religion, namely, that human beings need gods in order to exist, and therefore invent them so that these gods will provide them with vital elements in life: food, water, good health, prosperity and victories on the battlefield. Leviticus 26 promises all these things to the Children of Israel, on condition that they observe God’s commandments. But if these were the only truly important elements in religious belief, we would see something like this in the chapter in question: “If you obey my commandments, I will be your God and will see to all your needs.”

This week’s Torah portion, however, presents things in a totally opposite manner. It opens with a description of how God will ensure the wellbeing of his people – “I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce … and ye shall eat your bread until ye have enough, and dwell in your land safely … and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword” (Lev. 26:4-8) – and only afterward depicts the nature of Israel’s connection with God: “And I will set my tabernacle among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11-12).

The fact that God resides among the Children of Israel is presented not as a factor that contributes to their prosperity but as an integral part of that prosperity. Granted, a human being needs blessings and wellbeing, and will attribute their existence or absence to God. But devotion to God is not a means, but an end in itself – the ultimate goal, more important than any of the material benefits he provides.

The argument that human beings need religion to realize their needs is presented more explicitly and in a more fundamental manner in the Book of Job, where the argument is articulated by none other than Satan himself. Whereas Job’s God-fearing, devoted attitude amazes the Almighty, Satan claims that Job does not really love God but is simply looking out for his own interests. God agrees to put Job’s loyalty to the test and thus allows Satan to destroy Job’s life. The ending is well known: Although Job bitterly (from his standpoint, justifiably) complains and presents God with some tough questions, he never abandons his religious faith. The big question that the Book of Job opens with – can human beings rise above their own interests and love God without expecting anything in return? – is in turn replaced by a question about the Creator and about how he rules the world.

Similarly, the central issue in Parashat Bechukotai is also not human conduct, whether Israel will or will not obey God’s laws. In Leviticus 26, the clear majority of actions that take place are attributed to God. If they do not obey, he will bring a series of disasters upon the nation that will lead to a military defeat and culminate in famine: “When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver your bread again by weight; and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied” (Lev. 26:26). For a moment, God pauses and alludes to his hope that these horrific catastrophes will cause Israel to abandon the path of sin. “And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me” (Lev. 26:27), the text reads, the situation will deteriorate to the point where starving parents will consume the flesh of their dead children, and the Holy Land will be destroyed by exile and conquest.

Here the threatening tone ends. Even in the depths of exile, when Israel hits rock bottom, God will not abandon his nation: “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God” (Lev. 26:44). The Almighty will remember his covenant with Israel and will ultimately deliver it from calamities – not because Israel will mend its ways and be worthy of redemption, but because he is the God of Israel.

Not only for human beings does it turn out that the covenant with God is based on more than self-interest; this is also the case with God. Just as human beings want more than the material prosperity God provides, but also aspire closeness with him, so does God desire not only that Israel obey him and perform his commandments, but he also regards his connection with the nation not just as a means but as an end in itself.

Those who consider religion to be merely a vehicle for supplying human needs mock the believer for failing to see that God does not actually supply those needs, and for this reason, they consider religion to be utterly useless. Ostensibly, Parashat Bechukotai is evidence that this attitude toward religion is correct. But in fact it turns this approach on its head, demonstrating that both God and human beings are indeed interested in their mutual connection for its own sake, and that it is not simply an instrument for achieving benefits. Although initially, this week’s reading seems to represent God’s commandments and actions as a series of conditions and consequences, another message emerges: that the mutual loyalty between God and humanity is unconditional.